I ended up reading a handful of African fantasy books this month, and I have greatly enjoyed all of them. One that particularly stood out is Son of the Storm, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, which is both a debut and one of our Dark Horse picks for the year. It’s the first novel in The Nameless Republic series, and Suyi says that the world is inspired by Nigerian folklore. While the book definitely has some issues that I will go into below, it was also my favorite debut that I have read in 2021 so far and definitely not a book to miss.
Son of the Storm tells the story of Danso, a mixed-blooded scholar studying at a wondrous university that few are privileged to attend, especially those with Danso’s heritage. The city is built in this winding maze of concentric circles, with the inner ones being lands of plenty and paradise, and the outer ones being dangerous slums. The inner-circle dwellers rule the city with intense xenophobia and rarely let anyone without their pure bloodlines study at the university. However, Danso is a gifted scholar with a perfect memory who manages to pass every test thrown at him, despite being a distracted, disorganized, and ironically forgetful student. When Danso accidentally memorizes a restricted tome that was supposed to remain forgotten, he finds himself caught up in a shadowy war for control of the city and must struggle to keep ahead of his enemies.
My plot breakdown is a little more vague than usual as part of the joy of Son of the Storm is blissful ignorance and a sense of discovery. Danso feels constantly out of his element and struggles to make the correct choice with limited information, a feeling the plot does an amazing job evoking in the reader. There are actually multiple POVs in the book other than Danso, including his fiancée, his future mother-in-law, his second (a type of bodyguard), and more. However, the bulk of the story definitely focuses on Danso and treats the rest of the cast as his mirrors and foils. Normally this isn’t my preference in narrative structure, but Danso is an excellent character and I didn’t mind spending all that time with him. He starts in an interesting place with a complex personality, and continually grows and evolves over the course of the book. He goes from this disinterested and immature scholar with a chip on his shoulder who is barely getting by to a confident leader who is trying to change the world for the better, and the transformation is great.
However, while I thought Danso’s character was very enjoyable, the rest of the book felt slightly akin to a toddler in many ways: adorable, exploring its surroundings, trying new things and sometimes failing, and sometimes slightly confusing and incoherent. Sometimes the plot in Son of the Storm is very clear and direct, and other times chapters will veer into strange areas that don’t actually seem to be about the story with little explanation why. Some parts of the world seem well-realized and exciting to explore, and others seem like vague ideas that need more development before they become well-refined parts of the narrative. Often, the prose is poetic and evocative of a style of fantasy (African) I haven’t seen enough of, other times it devolves into incoherent dialogue that can feel a bit stilted and directionless.
There is also a very interesting exploration of what feels like a more modern African ideal. Okungbowa says in his forward that one of his goals with Son of the Storm was to “situate the book in a time, place, and history that echoed his.” As I am possibly the furthest thing from Nigerian on Earth, I am unqualified to speak to how well Okungbowa captures this idea. However, I can definitely say that I felt like I got a peek into a culture that I previously hadn’t. The book felt very fresh to me and I really enjoyed learning about all sorts of customs and people I hadn’t seen previously in fantasy stories.
While the book has some issues, they feel like artifacts of a new writer in my opinion. With more time and practice I fully expect Suyi Davies Okungbowa to master his craft and deliver flawless books, and Son of the Storm is still an absolute blast to read despite some of these difficulties. I am fully invested in the story and ready for the next installment. If you are looking for a fantasy with a more worldly and original feel, look no further than Son of the Storm. Its chaotic nature might make it feel a little disorganized, but much like its protagonist Danso, the book only gets better as it grows into something bigger than its roots.
Rating: Son of the Storm – 8.0/10